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Lone ranger: the art of Alberto Giacometti

A revealing retrospective of the sculptor's work speaks to mankind’s alienation, loneliness and smallness

According to Alberto Giacometti ­(1901-66), all art is solipsistic. “When you look at art made by other people, you see what you need to see in it,” he argued. What generally needs to be seen in Giacometti’s art – all those attenuated figures with huge feet and tiny heads – is mankind’s alienation, loneliness and smallness in the world. Yet the artist never admitted that this was what he was up to; indeed, the interpretation came as something of a surprise.

“In the past I have never thought about loneliness when working,” he said, “and I don’t think about it now. Yet there must be a reason for the fact that so many people talk about it.”

What he did claim for his sculptures was that they were the result of unusually intense observation (he would put his sitters a fixed distance away from him and work in long sessions, looking and looking again) with the specific purpose not of capturing a likeness but of creating “a reality of the same intensity” as life. Exactly what that reality might be or represent, he didn’t know: “I want something, but I won’t know what it is until I succeed in doing it.” The 250-plus works in the revealing retrospective of Giacometti’s work now on at Tate Modern, co-curated by the gallery’s director, Frances Morris, are all about this questing.

The very first room sets the scene. It contains 26 busts dating from the beginning of his career to the end and shows his fascination with the human head, how he gradually moved away from simple representation and how he made use of every material he could find. Like his slightly older contemporary Picasso, he was a relentless experimenter and worked not just in bronze and stone but also in clay, wood, plaster (which, unlike most sculptors, he saw as a material in its own right rather than a stage preliminary to casting in bronze), pencil, prints, oils and Biro (he was an early adopter of the ballpoint pen).

Art was all he knew: his father, Giovanni, was a well-known post-impressionist painter and his brothers, Diego and Bruno, were also artists. When he moved to Paris from his native Switzerland in 1922 he quickly fell in with a group that included Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Balthus and Picasso (not that Giacometti was a fan: “Picasso is altogether bad, completely beside the point from the beginning except for cubist period and even that half misunderstood . . . Ugly. Old-fashioned vulgar without sensitivity, horrible in colour or non-colour. Very bad painter once and for all”).

This eclectic circle left its mark on his work as he tried out cubism and then, more wholeheartedly, surrealism, which he gave a violent twist. Woman with her Throat Cut (1932), for example, is a splayed, vaguely humanoid object, with ribs that have been cracked open and vertebrae exposed, while a Disagreeable Object of 1931 – a smooth, wooden tadpole form, made menacing by a cluster of spikes – is a tangled reference to his sexual impotence.

In 1935 Giacometti was formally expelled from the surrealist group, partly because he insisted on working from the model. From this point he concentrated exclusively on the human figure and particularly the head. “The head is what matters,” he said. “The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull.”

He spent most of the Second World War in Switzerland, trapped when the borders closed, and on his return to Paris in 1945 he started to produce the tall, thin figures that came to define him. They took their shape, he said, despite himself: “The more I wanted to make them broader, the narrower they got.” The highlight of the exhibition is the six Women of Venice plaster statues he made for the 1956 Venice Biennale, here reunited for the first time. Several of them show how he would worry away at the plaster, incising it with knives and embellishing it with lines of black and red paint. Sometimes he went too far with the knife and ended up destroying the piece he was working on. Together, the women – based on his wife, Annette, but infused with ancient sculpture – form a ghostly and sinister Greek chorus. The novelist and playwright Jean Genet said Giacometti made work for the dead.

Just as potent is his Walking Man of 1960, which his friend Jean-Paul Sartre surely had in mind when he called the artist’s figures “moving outlines”. Walking Man is Everyman, even though he bears a strong resemblance to Giacometti, the figure leaning forward into his endless tramp. It was this sculpture that in 2010 broke the record price for a work of art sold at auction when it fetched $104.3m (in 2015 his Pointing Man of 1947 fetched $141m). That’s a lot of money to be reminded that, when all is said and done, you are alone in the world. 

Exhibition runs until 10 September. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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